Post Road Magazine #27

Story

Andrew Wickenden

When Mucci was a junior in college, he went out once with Brenda Hirsch, who went on to have some TV success and was later found dead in her Pasadena apartment (bathtub, Xanax).

     The story Mucci never tells.

     He'll say, offhandedly, "Remember that episode of Heaven, Nebraska, where the coffee shop holdup turns into a weeklong hostage situation? Implausibly happy ending? Well, Brenda ran Patty's Coffee Corral—she played Patty. I knew her before that."

     They had a psych class together and Mucci couldn't take his eyes off her. One row over, one desk up. Ithaca thawed early that spring and the sun burned through the windows across Brenda's bare legs, smooth and tight up to the hem of her skirt. She nodded along with Professor Oberbrunner as he lectured, the fine muscles of her arms contracting as she jotted down everything. Meticulous about her notes, beautiful neck. The smiles that dazed Mucci every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a goner.

     

The day of their final was the last day Mucci saw her, which he wishes he'd known then. When Oberbrunner said, "Time's up," Mucci and Brenda turned in their exams with the rest of the class and pushed through the doors into the cool green night. The wind flittered with Brenda's dress and the curly ends of her hair, which was as long as Mucci would ever see it.

     "How'd you do in there?" he asked her.

     She scrunched her face up. "Disastrous, but at least it's done. I feel like I can breathe again. Tell me a joke."

     So he volunteered the one joke he actually remembered: after a set, Jim Morrison bows and gets a drink at the bar. People pat him on the back, buy him more drinks. Eventually he goes to the john. When he gets back on stage, someone from the audience calls out, "Do you know your fly's down and your johnson's out?" "Know it?" Morrison says, "I wrote the damn thing!"

     Mucci smiled through the punchline, trying to jumpstart the laughter that wasn't coming, and then felt the heat in his cheeks when Brenda smiled back at him, shaking her head.

     "That's really, really dumb," she said, not unamused.

     "I only remember the gists," Mucci said. "There's one about a leprechaun who grants wishes in exchange for blowjobs but it turns out he's just a midget."

     "Sounds like a good one."

     "You want to go somewhere?" Mucci said. "Do something?" Spontaneous. Overzealous. Witless. But she was still standing there. She chewed the inside of her cheek and glanced back toward her dorm, running her hand inside her collar, along her shoulder, maybe nervously, and then down across her breastbone and out.

     "Do I have time to shower first?" she said.

     "Nope."

     

Sterndorff's. Windowless and divey, where everything seems sort of glitzily liquored up in the mirrored neon behind the bar. Foosball, half a dozen scattered butcher-block tables carved deep with phone numbers, smutty rhymes, class years, dates, names—names circumscribed by hearts, connected with addition signs—names scratched out and carved over. Black-and-white photos paved the walls: a pouty Rita Hayworth, Joe Frazier flexing, Madonna, and others Mucci didn't know—none of whom, he was sure, had ever set foot in the place. Brenda hadn't either.

     "What do you think?" he said, surveying.

     "It's fun. Kind of gritty too—look at the carpet. That pattern, my god. Depressing, isn't it?"

     But she didn't look depressed at all. As they scouted for a table, she grinned at him and jumped her fingers along the backs of empty bar stools. Heads turned. Her hips swished the thin blue fabric of her dress and Mucci wondered if she was wearing underwear. Mucci and Brenda, way out there on County Road 9, where corn and silo country begins, miles from town and campus, walking into each other so their hands rubbed.

     They sat across from each other, Mucci with a High Life, Brenda with a gimlet—he didn't know what that was—and talked about the exam.

     "It wasn't so bad, was it?" Mucci said.

     "Doesn't matter anyway," Brenda said. "I'm probably not coming back next year."

     "Probably not?" Mucci shuffled the cardboard coasters in front of him, velvety with use. "How come?"

     "All my family's in Hermosa Beach. Not that I'm thrilled about living at home and going to Cal State but my sister's getting married soon. Whether she loves the guy or not. I'm pretty sure she's losing her mind. If I'm here, I can't be there, and if I'm here for two more years, then—" Brenda shrugged. "But my parents are thrilled I'm coming home. They'd guilt me into it regardless though—that's what they do. Family's like anyone else. They only love you when they need you."

     "I don't know if that's true," Mucci said. "What about unconditionality and all that?"

     "Believe me." She combed her hair back with her fingers, twisted it, and planted it on her head with an elastic. Her hair, tinted reddish from the high life neon glowing on the wall, her eyes on his eyes, watching him watch her, then down to his nervy hands. Mucci put the coasters down and waited for the story he expected from believe me, the story of whoever hadn't loved her under the right circumstances. Brenda traced the grooves on the table. don + tara '87—i ♥ the homeless—fuck sting. When she caught him staring, she laughed and said, "What?"

     And instead of anything else, he said, "Nothing."

     


The story Mucci never tells, because later, on the drive back, he missed the turn for 96B. Brenda was saying it was a gorgeous night and he was thinking the same thing. Stubbled fields whisked off into darkness on either side of them. Every few miles a porch light materialized into a house, then darkness again, and Mucci just missed the turn. "Wasn't that us?" Brenda said. Mucci said, "Shit," and eased into the shoulder. As he spun the wheel to make a U-turn, a pickup whipped past. The honk, Brenda's shriek, and the whoosh that shook the car left the air humming and set Mucci's heart thumping and spazzing and he tried his best to breathe easy. Brenda stared at him like he'd run down her dog, but they were fine. He put his hand on her leg, which tensed under his fingers, then relaxed, and he leaned across the shifter and kissed her. The pressure of her thin lips, the warm squirm of her tongue in his mouth.

     When she pulled away, she clenched her eyes and said, "I'm engaged, I'm engaged—shit, fuck." She said he went to Santa Cruz and he cheated on her and then called the next day to confess it. "How am I supposed to marry somebody that stupid?" she said.

     Mucci squeezed the steering wheel and watched the flies swarm the headlights. "So. Your sister."

     "I do have a sister. Jenny."

     "And she's getting married too."

     "Don't be like that. Nobody's getting rejected here, it's just the way it is. What do you want me to say?"

     She probably didn't have a sister, but then part of him didn't care. Not about the sister or the fiancé or the facts of her life. The air chittered with the sounds of bugs. It was a gorgeous night, warm enough to drive with the windows down and breathe in the spring. The car was still intact and running, and he and Brenda were still sitting there. They were fine. He settled in his seat and shifted into gear.

     They drove in silence till he suggested they detour at the falls off Slate Rock Road. She said sure, but as Mucci remembers it now there was no wholeheartedness or even enthusiasm. Maybe she already knew what it would take him a few minutes to realize: that there was no moon, no streetlights. That even if they made it there in one piece, they wouldn't be able to see the path to scramble down to the falls, or even see the ground to find the path.

     

The story Mucci never tells, mostly because he can't stop thinking about her. Her, the suicide, accidental or otherwise. She wasn't the type, the her he knew. Or maybe she was. The carpet at Sterndorff's was depressing for chrissake. And how well had he gotten to know her? Not as well as he wanted. Not as well as he sometimes thinks.

     

He parked in the gravel shoulder on Slate Rock Road and cut the engine and the lights.

     "Obviously it's a lot different when it's daytime," he said, "but you get the idea. Woods, waterfall, nature. Want to see what we can see?"

     Brenda laughed nervously. "You're not going to murder me out here, are you?"

     It had to be a joke, but the way she meant it seems different every time he tries to explain what happened, now that she is in fact dead. That idea of himself, a murderer.

     

The story Mucci never tells—because years later the alumni association had no recent contact information for hirsh, brenda; she didn't return to school in the fall and so wasn't actually an alum. The phone number the university had on file, when Mucci dialed it, connected him with someone named Raczkowski, who didn't know of any Hirsches.

     The Internet gave him nothing but her Wikipedia entry, and later, her obituary. He typed a letter of condolence that he mailed to all the Hirsches in the greater L.A. area, but he never heard back. Not that he really expected to. Even if he got ahold of someone—whoever it was—they'd be grieving plenty, he was sure, and not want to deal with the confessions of a nut like him.

     

She squeezed his hand and opened the door like she hadn't mentioned a fiancé or a murder—so tender in his memory sometimes it scares him. She climbed out and shut the door and trapped a blast of cool air in the car with him. Outside, she knocked on the window. Her voice muted by the glass. Are we going or what? Hello-o?


The story Mucci never tells, because whatever was in his head at that moment has since dissolved. He locks the doors (why?) and starts the engine (why?) and sprays gravel as the car leaps back onto the road, leaving Brenda—hey, hey! What the fuck?—there in the turnaround. He drops the windows and coasts the flat blacktop between the barren fields, the wind rippling his skin, gushing in his ears. For the few seconds he dims the headlights and sails through the dark, he can't yet imagine his future self, himself in a minute even, when he'll punch the brake and speed back to the falls, where he won't be able to find her. Brenda? Brenda! Can't yet imagine the fear he'll rationalize away when he scrambles around in the gravel at the edge of the woods, yelling for her, and she's not there. He'll tell himself she's fine, she just cut across the cornfields, or hitched back to campus. She's fine, she's just hiding in the shadows of the trees to teach you what's unforgivable. No need to descend to the base of the falls, or turn down every back road till she appears in the beams of the headlights, or call anyone, or say anything.

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